MIDDLETOWN, Conn. — They’ve given up on studying abroad, taking a summer vacation, or getting a full night’s sleep. Cookies or a granola bar on the run often constitute meals. Friends give them guilt trips for skipping out on the senior year bonding experience.
But for a few students at Wesleyan University seeking to earn a degree in three years, there will be a big payoff: saving tens of thousands of dollars in tuition.
Wesleyan, a liberal arts college sometimes called a “little Ivy,” appears to be the most elite school yet to embrace the idea of helping students cut down on the exorbitant cost of a college education by speeding up their journey to graduation.
The sheer enormity of tuition prices has helped the concept of a three-year bachelor’s degree gain a foothold in recent years at a few dozen schools around the country, including the University of Massachusetts Amherst and Lesley University.
The number of students choosing to participate remains tiny at most of the colleges, because of the difficulty of doing so and the enduring allure of four years in the ivory tower. And some educators worry that three years isn’t enough time for young people to find themselves intellectually or emotionally. But the endorsement from Wesleyan (sticker price $61,000 a year) may yet help popularize the idea.
The university has an unusually well-suited advocate for the three-year degree, president Michael S. Roth, who himself graduated from Wesleyan in three years in 1978, when it was permitted but not promoted, to save his family money. Roth doesn’t expect the three-year track to ever become hugely popular, but wants it to be considered a normal option, one that involves sacrifices but also the opportunity to leap more quickly into graduate school or other exciting pursuits.
He recalled a previous Wesleyan president telling students, “If you look back at your years at Wesleyan and say those were the best four years of your life, we failed you.”
“I feel the same way,” Roth said in an interview. “You shouldn’t stay here because this is your time to screw around and have a great time and then it’s going to be bad. These should be the years that launch you into the world in a better way.”
Roth began promoting the idea two years ago, so the first freshmen presented with the three-year option are now contemplating whether next fall will be the beginning of their final year. The dean who advises students on the three-year option has spoken to 40 or 50 students who expressed interest, but expects only about a half dozen to graduate early next spring.
Nineteen private, nonprofit colleges have debuted three-year degrees since 2009, according to the National Association of Independent Colleges and Universities. The group’s president, David L. Warren, said he expected the phenomenon to continue to grow, albeit slowly.
Perhaps tellingly, Mary Coleman, dean of the College of Arts and Sciences at Lesley, noted, “I’ve had parents ask me about the three-year degree with the sort of energy that sometimes the students don’t possess themselves.”
At Wesleyan, the new program arrived hand-in-hand with an unpopular change in policy, the school’s decision to give up on need-blind admissions. That means that a student’s ability to pay is a factor in a small percentage of admissions decisions, although Wesleyan still promises to meet the full need of students. Roth also pledged to limit tuition increases to the rate of inflation.
All three moves, Roth wrote at the time, were designed to make the university “more affordable in ways that can be sustained.”
But critics worry that the three-year degree essentially offers a lesser college experience for young people of lesser means.
Danielle Gamady is a first-year Wesleyan student from Brooklyn currently taking six classes to position her to graduate in three years. Although she sees the three-year degree as her best option, she thinks the administration is using the option as a way to distract from its failure to make the college equally accessible to low- and middle-income students.
One recent afternoon, she brought two cookies and coffee to Spanish class because she didn’t have time for a real lunch. “Eating’s not as much of a priority,” she said.
Wesleyan students need 32 credits to graduate, the equivalent of four courses every semester over the typical four years. There are a number of ways to shoehorn what would normally be the eight senior credits into the first three years, some more grueling than others.
Students can get credit for a maximum of two Advanced Placement classes. Then, they could conceivably take five classes every spring and fall semester. Alternately, they could take four summer classes, two half summers or one packed summer, and then only need to take two extra courses at some point during their three regular academic years.
Factoring in some summer school tuition, Wesleyan expects three-year students to save 20 percent of their total tuition bill.
Victoria Ramos, a sophomore from Chicopee who is premed and majoring in neuroscience and behavior, has gone the grueling route, earning at least five credits every semester.
At the beginning, she was simply driven. Then she realized how much money she could save for herself and her parents. With financial aid, her family is paying $22,000 this year. She also went to one summer session, then spent the rest of the season working at her parents’ grocery store.
Last semester was “really rough,” she said, because of a tough organic chemistry class. Still, she is in a Latin dance troupe and two other student groups, earning a B+ average, and says she still has time for her friends.
Her secret: six hours of sleep is enough, she says. And when she does need rest, she ignores her friends’ text messages.
If she had time, Ramos would have liked to run track and study abroad in France. But ultimately, she doesn’t feel deprived.
“In the time I’ve spent here I’ve really enjoyed everything I’ve done,” she said, “and gotten a good breadth of things I wanted to do, a taste of everything.”
Daniel Caballero, a sophomore from Chattanooga, Tenn., whose family pays about $20,000 a year for Wesleyan, has taken a more relaxed approach to the three-year degree. He has taken five classes in a semester only once and plans to do so only once more before he graduates with a major in government and a minor in film. That will work because he took a full load of four classes last summer.
The hardest part for him was his realization last November, in what would normally be the beginning of sophomore year, “that I was halfway through college and I wasn’t sure exactly what I was going to do afterwards,” he said.
Roth is likely to remain the icon of the three-year student. At Wesleyan, he worked long hours in a kitchen job, became president of a coed fraternity, graduated summa cum laude, and published his thesis as a book. He also did volunteer work and took part in a sit-in over apartheid in the president’s office, sleeping under the same table where today he holds meetings.
The one thing Roth didn’t get out of his three-year degree was kudos from his father, a New York furrier. “He said something like, ‘Yeah right thanks a lot. We still have all this tuition to pay,’ ” Roth recalled. “He wasn’t easily impressed about such things.”